The five-fold book of the Torah is followed in the Hebrew Bible by a four-fold “history” of Israel called the Book of the Early Prophets.
As you can see, the one difference in the content of this section from our English Scriptures is the omission of the book of Ruth, which in the Hebrew Bible is found in the Writings.
Furthermore, this section should be understood, like the Torah, as a single book. It records Israel’s history from their entrance into the Promised Land under Joshua to the days of the exile in Babylon, a period of over 600 years. It has been called by three names:
- The Historical Books: emphasizing the genre of the book — historical narrative.
- The Book of the Early Prophets: emphasizing the major role played in Israel’s history by God’s Word as spoken through his prophets.
- The Deuteronomic History: emphasizing how the promises and warnings in the book of Deuteronomy came to pass in the life of Israel in this period of their history.
The emphasis on these books as “prophetic” shows that they are works of theological testimony and not just a recital of events, persons, and nations. Though all history is interpretive, the Book of the Early Prophets is transparently so. Arranged into its final form by the exilic or post-exilic community, it represents an attempt to explain why the exile had happened and why the exiles should have hope for the future. Overall it shares the perspective of Deuteronomy, which anticipated Israel’s life in the Promised Land and subsequent exile, and pointed to the restoration of her blessing in “the latter days.”
As Terence Fretheim says, it was especially Israel’s relationship to the First Commandment that was central to the deuteronomic historian’s concern. The exile was not the result of God being unfaithful to Israel, but of Israel failing to prove loyal to their covenant with God. The main problem was not “disobedience” in the sense of failing to keep outward regulations, but “disloyalty” in their hearts that led them to worship other gods. Their hope was to be found in God’s promise to David.
There is obviously a vast amount of material in this long work. We cannot hope to do it justice in a blog post. Let me, however, suggest one simple key to reading the Book of the Early Prophets. One of the main characteristics of this book is that it is organized around hortatory speeches by key leaders and editorial comments by the author. These speeches function like doors: closing out one era in Israel’s history and opening a new one. Four themes are prominent in them:
- God’s past promises
- God’s past warnings
- God’s promises for the future
- God’s invitation to repentance and faith.
Here are some of the key speeches and comments in the book:
These speeches, prayers, and editorial comments are like the “red ink” of the work. They not only move the narrative forward, but they contain the main themes the author was trying to communicate to the exiles. The Book of the Early Prophets has been called “The Gospel for the Exiles,” because it presents:
- The story of human failure and God’s righteous judgment;
- God’s provision of hope and salvation in a coming Kingdom ruled by a Son of David;
- God’s invitation to hear his Word, repent, and turn in faith to him.